Tulsi Gabbard: is the Iraq war veteran 2020’s most divisive candidate?


FEBRUARY 23, 2019

Tulsi Gabbard on Sunday in North Hampton, New Hampshire.- AP

As presidential candidates from the already crowded Democratic field crisscross early primary states hunting for votes and donors one coffee shop, one living room and one auditorium at a time, foreign policy feels like an afterthought for most as they pitch their visions of how they would transform America.

But Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is different. Foreign policy is the central theme to the 37-year-old Iraq war veteran’s campaign.

At events across New Hampshire this weekend, the congresswoman told voters that the US had to end its involvement in costly “regime change wars” and avert a “new cold war.”

In her stump speech she warned voters of powerful forces that are “invested in our country continuing to stay in a state of perpetual war” while warning an audience at a burrito restaurant in the small city of Laconia about the threat of a nuclear strike.

“Sometimes people ask me: ‘Tulsi, why do you talk about these issues of foreign policy, these are things happening in other places – why don’t you talk more about domestic issues?’” she said at a town hall event in New Hampton on Sunday. “What is more domestic than our very existence? We must address these issues.”

To some, Gabbard is the ideal face of the progressive movement. She is young and charismatic. A vegetarian and a surfer, whose worldview was shaped partially by her time in Iraq. She is the first Hindu and the first American Samoan elected to Congress.

But she is also perhaps the most controversial Democrat to enter the race, whose past actions could give liberals pause.

At a time when Donald Trump is accused by his critics of giving the benefit of the doubt to foreign autocrats, the congresswoman’s own critics have viewed her as having done the same with Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad.

In January of 2017, the congresswoman visited areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian government on a “fact finding mission” while also meeting with Assad, whose forces stand accused of war crimes including the use of chemical weapons.

Months later, she expressed skepticism that Assad’s government was behind an April 2017 chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun – an attack that the United Nations along with the United States and many other countries determined Syria’s government was responsible for.

Gabbard’s visit with Assad and her statements on Syria drew fire from the left. In response to Gabbard’s skepticism of the Syrian government’s involvement in the chemical weapons attack, onetime presidential candidate and former governor of Vermont Howard Dean tweeted: “This is a disgrace. Gabbard should not be in Congress.”

In an interview, Gabbard repeated her line that Assad is a “brutal dictator” while underlining her commitment to end “regime change wars.”

“There are brutal dictators in the world, Assad is one of them,” she said. “The United States should not be in the regime change business because it is creating so much suffering for people in these countries.”

Liberals must also grapple with the congresswoman’s anti-LGBT past, in which she worked for the Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a group run by her father that opposed same-sex marriage. Gabbard has since said she regrets having held those views and that her life experiences have changed her views.

And as other candidates have hailed the free press at a time that the sitting president decries the media as “the enemy of the people,” Gabbard’s campaign appeared to strike a different note recently.

Her campaign website has posted: “The corporate media is doing everything they can to stop our campaign before it gets started – including using fraudulent journalism and discredited sources to launch their biased attacks.”

Asked about this message, Gabbard told the Guardian it was a direct reference to a recent NBC News article that “was citing discredited experts in an attempt to smear my campaign.” She said she did not agree with Trump’s characterizations of the media, but would call out stories that “are not based in facts”.

“You guys as journalists have an important responsibility, as you know, to deliver the truth,” she added. “So this isn’t about favorable or unfavorable, it’s about the facts. And if you’re not reporting the facts, then you’re doing a disservice to the people.”

Like the candidate, many supporters are quick to dismiss her interactions with Syria. Instead, they say criticism over that and her past opposition to LGBT rights is the result of a smear campaign.

“Tulsi is not an Assad apologist or any of that nonsense. She went there to find out the truth on the ground because she served in uniform in a war that we were lied into by the Bush administration,” said Ray Alt, who launched his “Run Tulsi Run” Facebook group during the 2016 campaign.

Christine Green traveled from Amesbury, Massachusetts to see Gabbard speak. Wearing a lei around her neck at a town hall event in North Hampton – as Gabbard often does – she told the Guardian she was 98 percent sure that the congresswoman was her top choice.

On criticisms of Gabbard, she said: “I believe a lot of it is literally a smear campaign, the negative stuff.” The attention paid to the congresswoman’s past LGBT record was unfair, she said, given Gabbard’s reversal and apologies.

At that same town hall, when one voter said he admired Gabbard for meeting with Assad, the room erupted in applause.

Not everybody the congresswoman encountered was willing to so easily dismiss the criticisms.

Watching Gabbard speak at a vegan restaurant in Portsmouth was Barbara DeStefano, vice-chair of the Portsmouth Democrats. She said she was uneasy about Gabbard’s trip to Syria and remarks about the conflict.

“It does give me pause that she did that. She has to hopefully get away from that as the campaign goes on,” she said.

Courtesy/Source: The Guardian